Born in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, Phyllis moved to London with her parents after the First World War where she remembered seeing barrel organs accompanied by brightly-dressed dogs and monkeys sitting patiently next to their itinerant owners. Windows would open and coins cascade down wrapped in coils of paper before the acts moved on down the road.
Her primary education was short but not sweet because she publicly but inadvisably recited a bawdy end-of-term poem she had been taught by her father. The parents loved it but not the headmistress who promptly expelled her at the tender age of 10! Her parents saw no need for further education for a girl in the early-1920s so from thereon in she effectively educated herself.
Much to her mother’s chagrin - who had hoped she would take to serious music – she bought herself a ukulele for 10/6d and promptly learnt to play it before graduating to composing fox-trots and blues to her own lyrics. Soon part of a touring concert party she was fortunate enough to be spotted by a professor during a performance they gave at the Conservatory of Music in Blackheath. He promptly offered to give her lessons in "proper" music which led eventually to serious composition in London itself, at the Royal Academy.
"I cannot admit to being an illustrious pupil. I learnt the timpani and was playing at a concert (Royalty present) when I descended with a wallop a bar before the crucial moment – ‘You may be only 17 but do that again and you’re fired!’ said the conductor. I next had a shot at writing a symphony in which every instrument played non-stop without a break. As the duration was nearly an hour the players all emerged breathless and puce in the face."
Violin and piano sonatas followed together with what Phyllis thought was an undeserved Gold Medal. That her works had promise, however, there is no doubt as the following amusing incident relates. Female composers were few and far between at the time and the doyen of them all was the redoubtable Dame Ethel Smyth who invited Phyllis to lunch at her home in Woking. Unfortunately, Phyllis’ male chaperone insisted on stopping off at various pubs en route and they pulled in hopelessly late.
"When we did eventually arrive, pretty well-oiled, there was Dame Ethel, dressed – with the exception of a harsh tweed skirt – in an entirely male rigout – stiff collar, tie, sports coat, billy-cock hat, and clutching a struggling sheep dog. Her eyes were ablaze with anger as she shouted ‘Lunch is ruined, how like a man.’ Once the meal was over her attitude lightened somewhat and after I strummed my Cello Concerto for her she said ‘At last I have heard a real woman composer!’ Unfortunately the poor dear was virtually tone deaf so I did not take the vociferous praise too literally. She then sang and played Wagner for hours after which we finally took our departure, completely exhausted. But the ordeal was not quite over. Her house was near a kind of roundabout from which we seemed quite unable to extricate ourselves and kept going round in circles, each time returning to the same spot to see her still glowering from the window. At length she burst open the door and yelled ‘GO!’ Terrified, we managed to find a side turning and scarpered. My Cello Concertowas performed soon afterwards at Bournemouth with Dame Ethel sitting in the front row banging her umbrella to what she thought was the rhythm of the music. Just before she died, I invited her to my wedding. Her reply was typical and the card read ‘1,000 congratulations; sorry, too old to come but promise my ghost will not appear.’
In 1935 Phyllis married Alan Frank when her pessimistic professor thought she would stop writing, but he was wrong. Despite destroying many manuscripts – which is why her works have no opus numbers – she produced a rich legacy of music which is sadly, like so much good British music, now rather neglected. Like many composers, she feared her works were not as good as they should be but was realistic enough to pen the following thoughts in 1979, while recovering from an operation: "I must admit to having a sneaking hope that some of my creations may prove to be better than they appear. One can only surmise and it’s not for the composer to judge. All I can vouch is this – writing music can be hell; torture in the extreme; but there’s one thing worse; and that is not writing it."
One of the author’s favourite pieces is the delightful four-movement suite London Fields, commissioned for the BBC Light Music Festival in 1958. With the help of a privately recorded performance he used it to introduce a class of inner-urban very academically limited boys to music more serious than the contemporary pop to which they were accustomed. As each of the movements unfolded, so the children were invited to sketch what came into their minds. Springtime at Kewevoked daffodils and crocuses; The Maze at Hampton Court produced all kinds of curly-wurly shapes;St. James Park – a Lakeside Reverie resulted in ducks and swans swimming a-plenty while the grand finale, Hampstead Heath – Rondo for Roundabouts brought forth all manner of helter-skelters, dodgem cars, candy floss, toffee apples and the like. The icing on the cake came after the fourth week when a small boy approached the teacher at the end of the lesson and said "Please sir, I like this music. Can you do a recording for me?" He got his recording and for all I know he is, like me, still playing it.
Phyllis Tate’s suite "London Fields" is included on the CD ‘London Landmarks’ by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Gavin Sutherland (Sanctuary-White Line CD WHL 2138)